LEXINGTON, KY. — The improbable showdown saw a predictable outcome. Georgia, picked by almost everyone to win the SEC East for a second consecutive season, won the SEC East for a second consecutive season by making Kentucky look decidedly second-best.
The Bulldogs won 34-17. They could’ve won bigger, but this more than sufficed. They booked passage to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the SEC Championship game on Dec. 1, and they did it with one conference game to spare. Only once this season has Georgia seemed anything less than the class of its division, and that came against LSU, which isn’t even based in the East.
RECAP: Georgia beats Kentucky 34-17, clinches SEC Championship Game appearance
“This one has been more of a battle,” quarterback Jake Fromm said of the back-to-back division titles. “A lot of people doubted us.”
Said coach Kirby Smart: “I felt like it was easier maybe with the veteran kids we had [in 2017] … We’re a young team.”
Fromm: “Last year we were blowing teams out. That’s not the way it’s been this year. But I’m not trying to say this is any better or any worse.”
Smart: “It’s not been easy. It’s never easy. People sometimes get spoiled when you win.”
For Kentucky, which would have supplanted Georgia as division champ had it prevailed, this sunny Saturday was many things: the biggest game in the history of a stadium that opened in 1973; the biggest Big Blue game anywhere since Jan. 1, 1951, when Bear Bryant’s Wildcats upset No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl; and the first time this program had played for the SEC East title since there was an SEC East.
It became something different. It became yet another reminder of a sports truism: Really good players tend to beat pretty good players.
The Wildcats had ridden their defense and the legs of Benny Snell to the nation’s No. 9 ranking. Georgia clamped down on Snell and made Kentucky have to throw to win, and Terry Wilson isn’t about to dazzle an opponent of this caliber with his arm. The Bulldogs, by way of contrast, can win any old way you choose it, special teams included.
The game began the way of many Kentucky games, which is to say badly for the Wildcats. They made one first down and punted. Mecole Hardman returned it 65 yards to the 23. Elijah Holyfield ran for 15 yards to the 8. Fromm hit Isaac Nauta on a crossing route for the touchdown on third-and-goal from the 4. Not five minutes into its biggest game in three generations, Kentucky trailed 7-0.
The home side steadied after that, but it was a steadying that yielded minimal scoring. When finally the Wildcats managed a field goal to make the score 7-3, nearly half of the second quarter was gone. At that moment, Kentucky had held the ball for 16:47 to Georgia’s 4:50. Time of possession can be a decisive factor in football, except on those occasions when it’s not.
The Bulldogs saw that Kentucky score and raised it. They moved 75 yards on 14 plays to make the score 14-3. That drive featured the Bulldogs in nearly all their splendor. Holyfield started it with two runs. Fromm found Riley Ridley for 16 yards on second-and-12. D’Andre Swift gained 11. Backup quarterback Justin Fields, who hadn’t played against Florida, ran for another first down. Then he was dropped for a loss, and that was the end of that stint.
Fromm returned and completed two passes to Jeremiah Holloman. Another first down. Then, after Hardman’s holding penalty made it second-and-17, Swift burst through the middle on a draw and made two Wildcats – the highly regarded Josh Allen was one – to score from 20 yards out. Now it was 14-3, and the underdog hosts were in trouble.
Kentucky escaped the half without yielding another score, though only just. Taking possession with 1:16 left, Georgia moved from its 16 to the Wildcats’ 27. Twenty-three seconds remained. Fromm threw incomplete passes on first and second down. On third-and-10, he and Swift botched an inside handoff. Allen recovered. Earlier, he recovered a high center snap – backup center Trey Hill replaced Lamont Gaillard on the game’s first series – at the Kentucky 34.
Those fumbles were all that kept this close, not that an 11-point spread is to be confused with a frog-strangler. Georgia had outgained Kentucky 176 yards to 133 despite having the ball for only 11:52 of the first 30 minutes. The Wildcats’ longest gain had been 14 yards. Not since Sept. 29 against South Carolina had they managed more than 15 points in a game.
Soon it was 21-3 and all but done. Taking the second-half kickoff, Georgia moved with dispatch to another touchdown. Holyfield scored it after Fromm converted on third-and-2 by keeping around right end. The 78-yard surge was aided and abetted by Kentucky safety Darius West, who was flagged for targeting after hitting Swift with his helmet. The penalty cost the Wildcats 15 yards and West an ejection.
Kentucky took the punt and punted again. Swift again stormed over center and kept going. The 83-yard touchdown pushed the lead to 25 points with 7:56 left in the third quarter. The sun was still shining over Kroger Field, but gloom – and reality – had descended. Even when Snell scored to make the score 28-10, Wildcats lineman Bunchy Stallings managed to get himself ejected for making contact with an official. How does that happen?
Swift finished with 156 yards, Holyfield 115 – both career bests. “They’re the perfect 1-2 punch,” Fromm said. (We note that this quarterback worked with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel last season.) “They run tough. You know they’re going to break the will of a defense.”
The team that has, over the past two seasons, played a slew of big games, rose to the moment yet again. Georgia heads home from the Bluegrass in the place it always figured to be – atop the SEC East, guaranteed of playing for a second conference title in three seasons under Smart.